On February 24, 2021, The New York Review of Books and Community Bookstore presented a conversation with Mark Danner, Elizabeth Bruenig, Howard French, and Justine van der Leun, moderated by Darryl Pinckney. The five writers, all contributors to the Review, discussed how contemporary journalism has been affected by the current moment of political and social crisis.
Below are selected highlights from the panelists’ remarks, and a video recording of the event. (Excerpts have been edited and condensed.)
Justine van der Leun, on reporting in isolation:
“With my current beat, which is women and mass incarceration and issues of the criminal legal system, I had already been developing an interviewing technique that did not involve needing to be in person. I wanted to find a way to collect these suppressed voices. And the way that you do that with people in prison is through writing. Of course, our apartments are not comparable to American prison cells. But the situation we all found ourselves in, confined to our small spaces, cut off from the rest of the world and only able to communicate virtually or through the written word, was something that I was already doing. I almost felt as if my methods were paralleling their experiences.
“Has this pandemic in a way been good for journalism? We’re taking stock of what this country really is. Do we know America, and did we ever really know it? Are we starting to get to know it now?”
Mark Danner, on covering Donald Trump, and the attacks on the press:
“Journalism in a time of crisis is such an interesting notion, because not only is there the pandemic, which has changed so much of how we behave, how we look at the world, how we associate with people, and how we live our lives. But other crises seem to lie under this one. One of them is obviously the social justice–racial justice crisis that was really set off in its current form with the killing of George Floyd. And then there is a much larger, it seems to me, crisis of legitimacy. The institutional sources of informational power have been delegitimized. Without that happening, you never would have had a President Trump. There is a kind of decadence over not just our information institutions, but our political institutions. When we talk about doing journalism in a time of crisis, we have to look at this delegitimization because it is just everywhere around us.”
Elizabeth Bruenig, on the Internet and polarization:
“G.K. Chesterton said—I’m paraphrasing—If you want to meet people who are not like you, live in a small town. If you’re actually in a tiny, tight enclave where you’re forced into constant contact with other people, you’re going to get a true sense of how nuts people are, the enormous variation in the things people think. The problem is that because of the Internet, no one lives in a small town. Everyone lives in this hive of constant communication. And within that, you can wall yourself off in an enclave of people who are in the same zone as you are.
“Social psychology tells us when a bunch of people who are like-minded get together, they polarize, they become even more entrenched. Their thoughts become even more extreme versions of what they had been before. That is what the Internet enables…Letting everybody in the world talk to each other simultaneously was never going to turn out well, right? That’s the Tower of Babel. I think there’s too much togetherness. I think that’s a possibility.”
Howard French, on the democratization of the media:
“There has been a war on the media, the press, and its place in society. And there are plentiful reasons to be seriously concerned about that. But on the other hand, I think we would be remiss not to recognize that there has been an extraordinary democratization of information over the last generation or so that, with all of these perils, has also brought a lot of positives. I, for one, wouldn’t want to go back to the old days when we had two or three newspapers, we had the nightly news on the networks, and very little outside of that.
“In the past, white people didn’t have to put up with black people saying stuff in public, getting on the air, being in print, being heard, being seen. The gatekeepers all came from a very narrow social and racial set of identity backgrounds, and black people and many others were kept out of view almost all of the time. Identity politics, white identity politics, are in a very real sense a reaction to that: ‘Who are these people, and why are they on my TV screen? Why do I have to hear about their issues? Let’s get back to the real America.’ The real America being, of course, that group of white people.”
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